Palm Leaf Manuscripts

Palm leaf manuscripts are produced from two main types of palms: palmyra and talipot. The palmyra leaf is rather thick and inflexible and inclined toward brittleness over time. The talipot is thinner and more flexible and has excellent durability, reportedly lasting as long as 600 years. Palm leaf manuscripts include many unique sources on Indian, Nepalese, and Southeast Asian culture and religion.

Palm leaves are plicate (that is, have parallel folds) and segmented, with a central rib. The hard yet flexible flaps on either side of the rib yield the material that is prepared by drying and polishing for writing or painting or for incising characters with a metal stylus. Incised writing is made visible by applying a mixture of lampblack, bean plant or berry juice, and aromatic oil. The oils used have included camphor, citronella, castor, lemongrass, cedarwood, mustard, neem, eucalyptus, clove, and sesame. They are chosen for their insect repellent qualities.

Although palm leaf manuscripts often vary in size among different regions of the world, they seem to average 48 centimeters in length and 4 centimeters in width. There is a considerable range of "book" thickness, with some single works more than 40 centimeters thick.

Each "book," or bundle of leaves, is usually fastened together with braided cords threaded through two holes pierced through the entire manuscript about 4 centimeters from each end or by the insertion of bamboo splints. The resultant "binding" is finished by the addition of heavy wooden covers at the front and back, also tied by the braided cords or wrapped with webbing or a textile cloth.

Two techniques are generally used for writing on palm leaf manuscripts: incising with a pointed metal stylus and writing directly with a pen or brush. Most palm leaf manuscripts are incised, with occasional additions or emendations written with pen on the surface.


Most palm leaf has a decided curve across its width, with some rigidity along its length. Although a variety of sizes have been used, the actual structure of the plant can be clearly seen, especially with the aid of a magnifying glass.

The method of writing can also be determined through magnified examination, helped considerably by raking light. In recent years a method of printing palm leaf has been developed for facsimile and ceremonial purposes, but this can usually be easily detected because of the uniformity of the characters, the glossy appearance of the printing ink, and the absence of incision.

Condition Concerns

Damage to and deterioration of palm leaves are usually the result of staining, mechanical damage, splitting and cleavage, and insect and rodent activity.

Palm leaf is susceptible to desiccation, losing its flexibility and becoming brittle. In many cases this dryness is treated by reapplying oil, which has a darkening effect if done too often. The lignified cells are particularly susceptible to degradation and discoloration. When exposed to high humidity or severely damaged by mold, palm leaves may stick together in blocks.

The leaf tends to split along longitudinal veins, especially where previously incised with a stylus. Once begun, the mechanical damage progresses through the leaf.

Damage is also caused by friction between the cord and the edge of the binding hole. Some of this damage is caused by a traditional binding method in which the threaded cord is wound around the edges of the manuscript, causing breakage of the leaf edges.

Relevant readings

Agrawal, O. P. 1982, "Care and Conservation of Palm-Leaf and Paper Illustrated Manuscripts." In John Guy, ed., Palm Leaf and Paper: Illustrated Manuscripts of India and Southeast Asia. Victoria, Australia: National Gallery of Victoria, p. 85

Agrawal, O. P. 1984. Conservation of Manuscripts and Paintings of Southeast Asia. London: Butterworths.

Cornell University, Department of Preservation and Conservation. Manual guides and reports. [].

Dean, John F. 1999. "Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam: The Road towards Recovery." Disaster and After: The Practicalities of Information Service in Times of War. London: Taylor Graham. Volume editors, Paul Sturges and Diana Rosenberg

Khine, Myat. 1986. "The Fine Writings on Ancient Parabaiks." Forward (October): 22-25.

Kishore, Ranbir. 1961. "Preservation and Repair of Palm Leaf Manuscripts." India Archives 14 (January).

Suryawanshi, D. G., M. V. Nair, and P. M. Sinha. 1992. "Improving the Flexibility of Palm Leaf." Restaurator 13(1): 37-46.

Suryawanshi, D. G., P. M. Sinha, and O. P. Agrawal. 1994. "Basic Studies in the Properties of Palm Leaves." Restaurator 15(2): 65-78.